Skydiving in Moab, Utah

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 Skydiving by Thea Busuttil

When I was seven years old, I promised myself that there were three things in life that I would never do. These solemn oaths were scrawled in spiky, overlarge handwriting in one of my diaries. The list ran like this:

  • Never wear pink
  • Never eat snails
  • Never jump out of a plane

My older, more curious self promptly disregarded these sage pieces of advice in quick succession. Pink was accepted into my wardrobe’s fold, I tried snails when I went to Paris, and in Moab I jumped out of a plane.

Skydiving in Moab

Travelling around the world I now look for the rollercoaster or the sport that will, in a few brief seconds, make me smile widely for hours on end. All adrenaline junkies, be warned – skydiving is one of those sports that you have to try.

My American Travels

While I was in America on an academic exchange programme, I squeezed in as much travelling as I (and my bank account) could possibly manage in one semester. America’s landscape turned out to be much more diverse than I ever imagined. A French friend, Justine, and I made it to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the wine yards of California, and to the barren landscape of Moab. This particular part of Utah resembles photos of Mars more than any other photo of Earth. It’s a vast, dusty red stretch of land with only shrubs for company. When you’re there, you suddenly realise where Hollywood has been going to film its cowboy movies for all these years.

On the other hand, the expanse of space and the towering monuments of stone pulled out of the Earth by some invisible hand force you to imagine an older, quieter, time. You can close your eyes, look up at a sky flooded with stars, and know that two hundred years ago the sky and the land looked exactly the same as they do now.

Three skydiving attempts

I had ample time to observe the ‘Beehive State’, so called for its industrious populace, because Justine and I visited three times. Once on a camping trip, and two attempts at skydiving. We actually attempted to go skydiving three times, but we only managed to jump the third time. Following a friend’s recommendation we booked a spot with Skydive Moab Canyonlands, a company situated at a small airfield in the middle of an open stretch of road that is about three hours’ drive out from Durango, Colorado.

The first time I went with a group of adventurous friends, only to be turned away because it was too windy to jump. The refusal assured me (more than any review could) that this place meant business. A few months later we tried to go again, waking up at the crack of dawn, to trudge outside in several feet of snow in Durango, to find that our designated driver was too sick to take the wheel. This time, we were the ones who had to cancel.

Fortune finally smiled on us the third time. At the end of the semester, Justine and I travelled to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park on a road trip, picking up two friends of hers in California. On the way back from the West Coast, we finished our third day of driving much further on than anticipated, which gained us some time. We stayed in a small hostel in Moab, Utah, and in the morning I suggested going skydiving, once I realised that we were merely half an hour away from the airfield.

Skydiving in Moab

Skydiving in Moab

Disclaimer and motivation

The two boys and Justine were visibly more nervous about the idea than I was. I convinced Justine quickly, at heart she was as adventurous as I was, but in the car on the way there, the boys were still debating whether to jump or not. The weather, thankfully, was perfect this time. However the ten-page legal disclaimer we had to read and sign, before being allowed to jump, did absolutely nothing for the boys’ nerves. Dismemberment, broken bones, paralysis and death were all listed. I remember feeling the small flutter of panic for the first time in my stomach. Paralysis? Was that worth a couple seconds of happiness? Then I remembered that more people die driving a car then skydiving, and if you thought about every possible danger you could encounter in life, you wouldn’t put one foot outside your door. Life is risky, but it’s worth living.

My father would have had something to say about my internal philosophical debate, and probably quite a few reasons why jumping out a plane was not worth the risk. Thankfully he wasn’t there.

We had to wait a couple of hours before our turn to jump. Justine and I finished signing the papers and agreed to pay an extra $60 for photos. It seemed rather much seeing as the jump was about $100, but if I was going to do this, I wanted proof.

The boys were still pacing up and down the small hanger, deep in their discussion about whether this was worth the risk. I grinned, “Guys! You’re overthinking it. Just decide. Do you want to do this or not?” The owner, a typically outspoken and very friendly American, helped out with “You’re going to let two girls beat you?” Justine burst out giggling, and that made up their minds for them. They would jump, but we still had to go first.

Preparations

As first-time skydivers, we had to jump in tandem with our instructors. Basically, I would be strapped to his harness, suspended beneath him as we jumped. My instructor was called Pedro, a Brazilian, who was very chatty and seemingly carefree. I eyed him apprehensively as he rolled up our parachute and the reserve chute, but he seemed to know what he was doing.

We put on flying suits that looked like bad remakes of 1970s patterns and walked out to the plane. ‘Plane’ seemed like an overstatement for what looked like such a small, flimsy looking craft.

Up in the sky

As the plane juddered to life, I was suddenly conscious of the rhythmic thud of my heart. Moab fell away and Justine looked at me and gave me a brave thumbs up. I smiled at her. I was going first by unanimous consent: hers.

I hadn’t been scared on the ground, but once we were airborne I was afraid. A saying I still love came to mind; “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to continue in spite of it”. All poetic thoughts were dashed out of my mind as Pedro leant towards my ear, yelling last minute instructions, “Keep your arms up, legs open and don’t forget to breathe!”
I gasped. I hadn’t realised I’d been holding my breath. He motioned for me to move further back so that he could strap me in, “I open the door in 5 minutes alright?” he said as he fumbled with the straps. I was wondering why the hell he hadn’t strapped me in earlier as he reached across and slammed the door open.

The wind rushed into the plane, deafening in its fury at 15,000 feet. It was a continuous rush of pressure, however as I shuffled over to the door, I could see that the view was unparalleled. This was literally a bird’s eye view of the world.

My first skydive

“Swing your legs out!” Pedro gestured with his hands because I could barely hear him above the noise. I followed the command as my brain went into overdrive. I took a deep breath. I was doing this. The surge of adrenaline pumping through my blood engulfed my fear and I stared out at the earth as Pedro yelled “One…Two!”

I was flying.

Skydiving in Moab

He had pushed me out of the plane and we were free falling. I was falling so fast it was exhilarating and terrifying all wrapped into one. I was alive. I grinned madly into Pedro’s Go-Pro on his wrist and screamed with happiness. In the meantime, I had forgotten to tie my hair back and it was desperately trying to blind the one person who could get me back on the ground in one piece.

Skydiving in MoabFalling, I felt a vague sense of wonder at the world below me. Then something thumped into my ribs and for a split second, I thought something had gone terribly wrong.

It was only the parachute opening above me. It yanked me upwards, cutting my breath short. You only free fall for 35 seconds.

Best part of skydiving – gliding

Then we glided through the air and I felt like a bird. I was a human, flying. Pedro let me steer us in a complete circle and I tilted myself sideways as far as I dared as he whooped in encouragement. It was an adrenaline rush that I had never felt before, one that I desperately did not want to end.

As we came to land, Pedro yelled at me to bend my knees and I did. I had completely forgotten his earlier instructions to straighten out my legs after he had touched down. So after his legs hit the ground, my knees stayed suspended in the air, and inevitably we topped over into the mud. Poor Pedro, so much for his record of perfect landings.

Skydiving in Moab

A sludgy end to a glorious flight, but well worth it. Justine and I squelched out of the mud, laughing hysterically, comparing our reactions. The boys went after us and not surprisingly, they enjoyed it just as much as we did. I knew then that one skydive wouldn’t be enough for me. For some people once is enough of an achievement, for others, once you’ve seen the world that way, that sight cannot be unseen nor that feeling unfelt.

I will be skydiving in Sicily sometime soon, a bit closer to my island home, Malta. Skydiving feels like the world is at your feet and it is. Somehow, I’m sure my 7-year-old self would be very proud of me.